Chapter Twenty - The Fear Spreads
AFTER THE FIRST ISSUE of his parish magazine came out, Don Camillo found himself quite alone.
"I feel as though I were in the middle of a desert," he confided to Christ. "Even when there are a hundred people around me, there seems to be a thick wall that divides us. I hear their voices, but as though they came from another world."
"It is fear," replied Christ. "They are afraid of you."
"Of you, Don Camillo. And they hate you. They were living warmly and comfortably in their cocoon of cowardice. They knew the truth, but nobody could compel them to recognize it, because nobody had proclaimed it publicly. You have forced them to face it, and because of that they hate and fear you. And if they were able, they would kill you. Does all this surprise you?"
Don Camillo shrugged. "No," he said. "But it would surprise me if I didn't know that You were crucified for telling people the truth. As it is it merely distresses me."
Presently a messenger from the Bishop came. "Don Camillo," he explained, "His Excellency has read your magazine and is aware of the reactions it has aroused in the parish. The first number has pleased him, but he doesn't want the second number to contain your obituary. You must see to it."
"That doesn't depend on the will of the publisher," replied Don Camillo, "and therefore any request of the kind should be addressed not to me but to God."
"That is exactly what the Bishop is doing," explained the messenger, "and he wished you to know it."
The police sergeant was a man of the world: he met Don Camillo by chance in the street. "I have read your magazine and the point you make about the tire tracks in the Pizzis' yard is very interesting."
"Did you make a note of this in your report?"
"No," replied the sergeant. "I didn't because as soon as I saw them I had casts taken. When I compared the casts with the various local cars, I discovered that those tracks had been made by the Mayor's truck. Moreover, I observed that Pizzi had shot himself in the left temple although he was holding the gun in his right hand, an awkward position at best. And when I searched in the fireplace, I found the bullet that was discharged from his revolver when he fell after being shot through the window."
Don Camillo looked at him sternly. "And why have you not reported all this?"
"I have reported it. And I was told that if the Mayor was arrested, the matter would immediately acquire a political significance. When such things get mixed up with politics there are complications. Therefore, I had to wait for an opportunity and you have supplied it. I was not evading my responsibility. I just didn't want this business to get bogged down because some people want to turn it into a political issue."
Don Camillo replied that the sergeant had acted very intelligently.
"But I can't detail two men to guard your back, Don Camillo."
"It isn't necessary, Sergeant. Almighty God will protect me."
"Let's hope He'll be more careful than He was of Pizzi," the sergeant retorted.
The following day, the inquiries were resumed and a number of landowners and leaseholders were rigorously questioned. Verola was among those called up for questioning and when he protested indignantly, the sergeant replied very calmly.
"My good sir: given the fact that Pizzi held no political views and belonged to no party, and that he was not robbed, and given also the fact that certain new evidence tends to suggest a murder rather than a suicide, we must exclude the supposition that we are dealing with either a political crime or a robbery. We must therefore direct our inquiries toward those who had business or personal relations with Pizzi and who may have borne him a grudge."
The matter proceeded in this way for several days and everyone questioned was furious.
Brusco was infuriated, too, but he held his tongue.
"Peppone," he said at last, "that devil is playing with us as though we were kids. You'll see—when he has questioned everybody he can think of, including the village midwife, he'll be coming to you with a smile to ask whether you have any objection to his questioning our men. And you won't be able to refuse, and he will begin his questioning and out will come the whole business."
"Don't be ridiculous," shouted Peppone. "Not even if they tore out my nails."
"It won't be you that they'll question, or me, or the others we are thinking of. They'll tackle the man who fired the shot."
Peppone jeered. "Don't talk rubbish! How can they when we don't even know who did it?"
And that was a good question because nobody had seen which of the twenty-five men of the squadron had fired the shot. When Pizzi fell they had all climbed into the truck and later on separated without exchanging a word. Since then no one had even mentioned the matter.
Peppone looked Brusco straight in the eyes. "Who was it?" he asked.
"Who knows? It could have been you."
"Me!" cried Peppone. "And how could I do it when I wasn't even armed?"
"You went into Pizzi's house alone and we couldn't see what you did there."
"But the shot was fired from outside, through the window. Someone must know who was stationed at that window."
"At night all cats are gray. Even if someone did see, by now he has seen nothing at all. But one person did see the face of the man who fired, and that was the boy. Otherwise his mother wouldn't have said that he was in bed. And if the boy knows then Don Camillo knows. If he didn't know he wouldn't have said or done what he has."
"May those who sent him here roast in hell!" bawled Peppone.
Meanwhile, the net was being drawn tighter, and every evening the sergeant came to inform the Mayor of the progress of the inquiries.
"I can't tell you more at the moment, Mr. Mayor," he said one evening, "but we know where we stand at last; it seems that there was a woman in the case."
Peppone merely replied: "Indeed!" but he would gladly have throttled him.
It was already late in the evening, and Don Camillo was thinking up jobs to detain him in the empty church. He set up a ladder on the top step of the altar. He had discovered a crack in the grain of the wood of the crucifix and after filling it, he was now applying some brown paint to cover up the repairs.
He sighed once and Christ spoke to him in an undertone. "Don Camillo, what is the matter? You haven't been yourself for several days. Aren't you feeling well? A touch of flu perhaps?"
"No, Lord," Don Camillo confessed without raising his head. "It's fear."
"You are afraid? But of what, in Heaven's name?"
"I don't know. If I knew what I was afraid of I wouldn't be frightened. There is something wrong, something in the air, something against which I can't defend myself. If twenty men came at me with guns I wouldn't be afraid. I'd only be angry because they were twenty and I was alone and without a gun. If I found myself in the sea and didn't know how to swim I'd think, 'There now, in a few minutes I'll drown like a kitten!' and that would bother me very much but I would not be afraid. When one understands a danger one isn't frightened. But fear comes with dangers that are felt but not understood. It is like walking with one's eyes bandaged on an unknown road. And it's a bad feeling."
"Have you lost faith in your God, Don Camillo?"
"No, Lord, the soul belongs to God, but the body is of the earth. Faith is a great thing but my fear is physical. I may have faith, but if I go for ten days without drinking I'll be thirsty. Faith consists in enduring that thirst as a trial sent by God. Lord, I am willing to suffer a thousand fears like this one for love of You. But still I am afraid."
"Do You despise me, Lord?"
"No, Don Camillo; if you were not afraid, what value would there be in your courage?"
Don Camillo continued to apply his paint brush carefully to the wood of the crucifix and his eyes were fixed upon the Lord's hand. Suddenly this hand seemed to come to life, and at that moment a shot resounded through the church.
Someone had fired through the window of the little side chapel.
A dog barked, and another answered; from far away came the staccato burst of a machine gun. Then there was silence once more. Don Camillo gazed with scared eyes into Christ's face.
"Lord," he said, "I felt Your hand upon my forehead."
"You're dreaming, Don Camillo." Don Camillo lowered his eyes and fixed them upon the hand. Then he gasped.
The bullet had passed through the wrist.
"Lord," he said breathlessly, "You pushed back my head and Your arm got the bullet that was meant for me!"
"The bullet is not in the wood of the crucifix!" cried Don Camillo. "Look where it went!"
High up on the right hung a small frame containing a silver heart. The bullet had broken the glass and had lodged itself exactly in the center of the heart.
"My head was just there," said Don Camillo, "and Your arm was struck because You pushed my head backwards!"
"Don Camillo, keep calm!"
But Don Camillo was beyond recovering his composure, and if he hadn't promptly developed a high temperature, the Lord only knew what he might have done. And the Lord obviously did know, because He sent him to bed for two days with a fever that laid him as low and weak as a half-drowned kitten.
The window through which the shot had been fired looked out onto the little enclosed plot of land that belonged to the church. The police sergeant and Don Camillo stood there examining the church wall.
"Here is the proof," said the sergeant, pointing to four holes in the cement, just below the window sill. He took a knife from his pocket, dug into one of the holes and presently pulled out some object.
"In my opinion the whole business is quite simple," he explained. "The man was standing at some distance away and fired a round with his Tommy gun at the lighted window. Four bullets struck the wall and the fifth hit the window glass and went through it."
Don Camillo shook his head. "I told you it was a pistol shot and fired at close range. I am not yet so senile as to be unable to distinguish a pistol shot from a round of machine-gun fire! The pistol shot came first and was fired from where we are standing. Then came the burst from the Tommy gun from further away."
"Then we ought to find the empty cartridge near by!" retorted the sergeant. "And it isn't here."
Don Camillo shrugged. "You would need a music critic from La Scala to tell by the sound whether a shot comes from an automatic pistol or from a revolver! And if the fellow fired from a pistol he took the cartridge case with him."
The sergeant began to nose around and finally he found what he was looking for on the trunk of one of the cherry trees that stood in a row some five or six feet from the church.
"One of the bullets has cut the bark," he said and scratched his head thoughtfully.
"Well," he said, "we might as well play detective!"
He got a pole and stuck it into the ground close to the church wall, in front of one of the bullet holes. Then he began to walk with his eyes fixed on the damaged cherry tree, moving to right or left until the tree was in a direct line with the pole by the wall. He found himself standing in front of a hedge. Beyond the hedge were a ditch and a lane.
Don Camillo joined him and they carefully examined the ground on either side of the hedge. They went on searching for a while and after about five minutes Don Camillo said: "Here it is," and held up a Tommy gun cartridge. Then they found the other three.
"That proves I was right," exclaimed the sergeant. "The fellow fired from here through the window."
Don Camillo shook his head. "I don't know much about machine guns," he said, "but I do know that bullets from other types of guns never describe a curve. See for yourself."
Just then a policeman came up to inform the sergeant that everyone in the village was quite calm.
"Isn't that nice!" remarked Don Camillo. "Nobody fires at them! It was me that got shot at!"
The sergeant borrowed the policeman's rifle and, lying flat on the ground, aimed in the direction of the upper pane of the chapel window where he thought the bullet had struck it.
"If you fired now, where would the bullet go?" asked Don Camillo.
"Unless it was a trained bullet, it couldn't have gone past the altar, not if it split itself in two!" said the sergeant. "Which only goes to show that anything you get mixed up in is always enough to make one tear one's hair! You couldn't be satisfied with one assailant! No, sir: you had to have two. One that fires from behind the window and another that fires from behind a hedge a hundred and fifty feet away."
"Oh well, that's the way I am," replied Don Camillo. "I never spare expense!"
That same evening Peppone summoned his staff and all the local Party officials to headquarters.
Peppone was gloomy. "Comrades," he said, "a new event has occurred to complicate the present situation. Last night some unknown person shot at the so-called parish priest, and the reactionaries are taking advantage of this to throw mud at the Party. The reaction, cowardly as always, has not the courage to speak out openly but is whispering in corners and trying to saddle us with the responsibility for this attack."
Lungo held up his hand and Peppone signed to him to speak.
"First of all," said Lungo, "we might tell the reactionaries that they had better offer proof that there really has been an attempt on the priest's life. Since there seem to have been no witnesses, the reverend gentleman himself might have fired off a revolver so he could attack us in his filthy periodical! Let us first of all get proof!"
"Right!" exclaimed his audience. "Lungo is perfectly right!"
Peppone intervened. "One moment! Lungo may be right, but we all know Don Camillo and we know that he doesn't use underhanded methods . . ."
Peppone was interrupted by Spocchia, the leader of the cell at Molinetto. "Comrade Peppone: do not forget that once a priest always a priest! You are letting yourself be carried away by sentimentality. Had you listened to me, his filthy magazine would never have been printed and today the Party would not have had to put up with all the odious insinuations about Pizzi's suicide! There should be no mercy for the enemies of the people! Anyone who has mercy on the people's enemies betrays the people!"
Peppone crashed his fist down on the table. "I don't need any preaching from you!" he yelled.
Spocchia seemed unimpressed. "And moreover, if instead of opposing us you had let us act while there was still time," he shouted, "we shouldn't now be held up by a crowd of filthy reactionaries! I . . ."
Spocchia was a thin young man of twenty-five and sported an immense head of hair. He wore it brushed back, waved on top of his head and smooth at the sides, forming a kind of crest. He had small eyes and thin lips.
Peppone went up to him. "You are a half-wit!" he said, glaring. Spocchia paled but said nothing.
Returning to the table Peppone went on speaking. "Taking advantage of the statement of a priest," he said, "the reaction is putting forward fresh speculations to the discredit of the people. The comrades need to be more than ever determined ..."
Quite suddenly something happened to Peppone that had never happened before; he began listening to himself. It seemed to him as if he were in the audience hearing:
". . . and their bodies sold, the reaction paid by the enemies of the proletariat, the laborers starved . . . the lying clergy . . . the black government . . . America . . . plutocracy . . ."
And as he listened he was thinking, "What does plutocracy mean? Why is that guy spouting about it when he doesn't even know what it means?" He looked around him and saw faces that he barely recognized. Shifty eyes, and the most treacherous of all were those of young Spocchia. He thought of the faithful Brusco and looked for him, but Brusco stood at the far end of the room, with folded arms and lowered head.
"But let our enemies learn that in us the Resistance has not weakened. . . . The weapons that we took up for the defense of our liberty . . ." And now Peppone heard himself yelling like a lunatic, and then the applause brought him back.
"Good work!" whispered Spocchia in his ear as they went downstairs. "You know, Peppone, just give the word and we could be ready in an hour."
"Swell!" replied Peppone, slapping him on the shoulder. But he felt like knocking him down, although he didn't know why.
He remained alone with Brusco and at first they were silent.
"Well!" exclaimed Peppone at last. "Have you lost your tongue? You haven't even mentioned my speech!"
"You spoke fine," replied Brusco. "Swell. Better than ever before." Then the silence fell between them.
Peppone was writing in a ledger. Suddenly he picked up a glass paperweight and threw it violently on the floor, bellowing a long, intricate and infuriated blasphemy. Brusco stared at him.
"I made a blot," explained Peppone, closing the ledger.
"Another of that old thief Barchini's pens," remarked Brusco, careful not to point out to Peppone that, as he was writing in pencil, the explanation of the blot did not hold up very well.
When they left the building and went out into the night they walked together as far as the crossroads and there Peppone stopped as though he had something that he wanted to tell Brusco. But he merely said: "Well; see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow then, chief. Good night."
"Good night, Brusco."
Go on to chapter twenty-one, To Men of Good Will on the meaning of life website.